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Grace Daniels grabbed the smoking skillet on the stove, only to drop it again with a gasp of pain. Would she ever learn that the damned handle got as hot as the pan? Four weeks of burning herself, along with the food, and still the lesson hadn’t sunk in. She snatched up a tea towel and dragged the pan off the burner, then thrust her hand under the tap. Turning on the cold water, she grimaced at the crisp, smoking black mess on the stove. So much for tonight’s fried potatoes with sausage dinner. She sighed. Canned ravioli it was. Again. If the kids didn’t mutiny.
Glancing out the window overlooking the deck of the borrowed cottage, she did a quick head count. Joshua was still curled up in the chair hammock with his book. Lilliane and Sage were at the picnic table, practicing their letters in the late afternoon sun that filtered through the brilliant autumn leaves. That was three present and accounted for, and the fourth was due to wake up from her nap at any—
“Maaa-ma!” came a faint call from the rear of the cottage. “Mama mama mama maaa-ma!”
The thin knife that had taken up residence in Grace’s heart twisted. She blinked back a prickle behind her eyes. An entire month of repeated encouragement, and Annabelle still hadn’t grasped the auntie concept. While Grace understood the two-year-old’s insistence on calling her “mama,” every utterance of the word seemed to add to the pall hanging over them all.
Dabbing her hand dry with the tea towel, Grace dug deep to find a smile. Then she dropped the towel onto the counter and turned to answer the summons. “Coming, punkin!” she called.
Seconds later, she opened the door to the bedroom she shared with Annabelle, and the toddler squealed in delight.
“Mama!” Annabelle held out the soiled diaper she had removed and announced, “Poop.”
Grace swallowed a gag. “I see that.”
She relieved Annabelle of the soiled cloth and wrapped it up so the mess was hidden. Then she regarded the beaming, curly-headed imp with a wry shake of the head. “So. Diaper pins just made it onto tomorrow’s grocery list, did they?”
“Poop!” said Annabelle. “Peee-yew!”
“Peee-yew,” Grace agreed. She dropped the diaper into a covered soaking pail, then returned to lift the toddler from the portable crib. With what she considered admirable expertise, considering the scant month she’d been on the job, she plopped Annabelle onto the vinyl-topped dresser that served as a change table, washed and re-diapered her, then set the little girl on the floor. Annabelle wobbled for a moment, then found her balance and toddled back to the crib.
Grace lifted the bunny-decorated blanket, mercifully unscathed by the poop incident—she still hadn’t recovered from the baby’s trauma the last time she’d had to launder the treasure—and passed it to the little girl. Annabelle grabbed it in a hug, nuzzling her face into its folds. She pointed a chubby finger at the crib again.
Grace followed her niece’s point to the pacifier wedged in the corner. She shook her head. “No way, munchkin. Sussie stays in your bed, remember?”
Annabelle peered through the mesh side of her bed and waved. “Night-night, Sussie.”
Then, still clutching her blanket, she headed for the hall. She paused in the doorway to look back at Grace.
“Yes, you may find Joshua, but you leave your diaper on this time.” Grace put on a stern face and repeated, “Diaper on.”
“Dipe on,” agreed Annabelle. She turned and headed down the hallway at an unsteady run. “Jossa! Jossa! I up, Jossa!”
Grace waited, listening for the sliding door and the voice of the big brother Annabelle so adored. At only ten years old, Joshua had proved mature beyond his years. Grace didn’t know how she would have managed without his help and guidance as she’d taken over the little family. Hell, with the exception of Annabelle, who was too young to be affected, all of them were mature beyond their years. Far too much so, but that’s what happened when—
The knife in her heart twisted again, cutting off the thought. No. No dwelling. She had things to do. Little people to look after, dinner to remake…
Her gaze dropped to the sheets in the portable crib and she wrinkled her nose.
And more laundry to do. Again.
She sighed, thinking wistfully of her other life. A life where she’d been a successful thirty-two-year-old business analyst who wore smart pantsuits and wholly impractical shoes instead of blue jeans and sneakers. Where she’d traveled all over the globe and had hotel laundry services instead of being tucked into the backwoods of Perth, Ontario, with a crotchety old washing machine that needed its rinse cycle reset three times before all the soap was gone.
Out in the living room, the sliding glass door to the deck opened.
“Jossa!” squealed Annabelle.
“Annabelly with the big round belly!” Joshua replied.
The little girl shrieked with laughter, and Grace smiled, picturing her nephew poking a finger at the toddler’s belly button and grinning one of his rare, lopsided grins.
More giggles followed, and then Joshua called out, “Aunt Grace? I’m taking Annabelle onto the deck with me. Don’t worry, it’s warm enough, and I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Thank you, Josh,” Grace called back. “I’ll have dinner ready soon.”
The sliding door opened again, but this time it stayed open and Grace heard the screen pulled shut instead. Josh knew she liked to be able to hear them when Annabelle was outside. He was careful never to forget. None of them ever forgot. Not their manners, not their chores, not anything that was asked of them. Ever.
For the third time, the knife twisted in Grace’s heart. Also for the third time, she pushed away the melancholy and turned to practicalities, because time for dwelling was a luxury she didn’t have these days. Not while Julianne’s children needed her. Leaning down, she moved Sussie out of the way, gathered up Annabelle’s sheets, then trudged down the hallway to the mudroom off the kitchen, where the ancient washing machine resided. No dryer, but it was enough for now. As long as the kids stayed safe, that was all that mattered. All that Julianne had wanted.
Grace lifted the lid on the washer and stuffed the sheets in. Laundry, then dinner, then a movie, she decided, and tomorrow, a coveted trip into town with a stop for ice cream.
And a call to the hospital.
Sean McKittrick moved the driver’s seat as far back as it would go and then, using both hands, maneuvered his plaster-encased leg past the car doorjamb. His foot landed with a thud in the gravel of the driveway, sending a jolt through the limb that traveled all the way up to his gritted teeth. He squeezed his eyes closed and waited for the breath to return to his lungs. Damn, he’d be glad when it stopped doing that at every little bump.
Three more weeks, he reminded himself. Just three more weeks.
Followed by a leg brace and months of physiotherapy, but hey, one hurdle at a time, right?
With the pain reduced again to its usual aching throb, he set his right foot beside the first and twisted around to reach the crutches he’d stowed in the back seat. A grunt and an almighty heave brought him to his feet, where he teetered for a precarious few seconds before finding his balance. Then, glumly, he regarded the sloping, uneven stretch of path between him and the cottage porch. Huh. Maybe it was as bad as he’d remembered. He sighed. Well, he was here now, and he couldn’t very well sleep in the SUV. Nor could he manage the trip back to Ottawa today. He’d already skipped the last two doses of pain meds so he could drive up here in the first place. If he didn’t get something more than ibuprofen into him soon, he’d be tempted to rip the damned leg off altogether and be done with it.
Besides, the peace and quiet of autumn here was exactly what he needed. No one dropping in to see how he was doing, and no noisy neighbors. Hell, no neighbors at all at this time of year. He surveyed the cottage with satisfaction, letting the stillness penetrate. Set about ten feet lower than the driveway and tucked beneath massive maples and pines, the little cedar-clad box wasn’t much to look at, but it was watertight and comfortable.
He slammed the driver’s door and crutched his way around to the rear hatch, his travels made more awkward than usual by the crutches sinking into the driveway’s gravel. Just as he reached in for his duffel bag, the cell phone hanging from his belt rang. He unclipped it, glanced at the display, and grimaced. Yep. Right on time, as expected. He thumbed the button to answer.
“Hey,” he said. “How’s the happy honeymooner?”
“A little stunned to find his cousin has up and left town three weeks after being shot and having his leg put back together like a bloody jigsaw puzzle,” a familiar and famous Welsh-accented voice retorted. “I thought we agreed you’d come and stay with us when we got back.”
Sean snorted. “You and Gwyn agreed. I don’t remember having any more say in that than I did the nurse idea.”
“The nurse idea was the only way they would release you from hospital,” Gareth Connor reminded him. “And the only way Gwyn agreed to leave you here alone in the first place.”
“Yeah, well, I decided I’d recover faster at the cottage than I would at your place. No offense, cuz, but watching the two of you make post-honeymoon cow’s eyes at one another for the next three weeks wasn’t my idea of fun. And as cute as Gwyn’s kids are…” Sean shuddered. “Not my idea of a peaceful convalescence.”
“And being on your own out in the middle of nowhere seemed like a better idea how? You’re in a full leg cast and on crutches, Sean. What happens if you fall?”
“Then I imagine I’ll figure out a way to get up. Look, I’m not planning to go on any hikes, Gareth. I’m just going to read and nap and hang out in the hammock on the back deck. I’ll be fine.”
“You could have at least taken the nurse with you.”
“Are you nuts? Have Perky Pam at the cottage for three weeks with me? God, no.” Sean shuddered again, remembering the cheerfully efficient private nurse Gareth had insisted on hiring for him. Nice enough. Cute, even. But the woman had never stopped talking. Ever. He shook his head. “I’d have had to kill her, and that’s kind of frowned upon in my line of work.”
“So is stupidity, I would think.”
Sean eyed the path to the cottage once more, inclined to agree with Gareth but not about to tell him so. Especially when his gaze settled on what looked like awfully fresh bear scat just off the driveway. Great. Just freaking great.
“Gareth. I’m thirty-eight years old, I have my cell phone, and I’m a cop. If anything goes wrong, I’m pretty sure I can figure out what to do. Now, I know you’re used to getting your own way, being a Hollywood star and all —”
Sean grinned and continued as if he hadn’t heard, “But if you don’t mind, I’d like to get settled sometime before dark.”
“You really are annoying sometimes.”
“Back atcha, Connor.”
Gareth’s annoyed sigh echoed down the line. “Fine. Have it your way. But keep your cell phone on you at all times, and call me every couple of days so I at least know you’re still alive.”
“Anything else, dad?”
“Damn it, Sean—”
“I’m sorry,” Sean interrupted. He needed to get off this damned leg before it collapsed under him. Time to stop needling his cousin. “I know you’re worried, but I really am all right. They put the cast on yesterday, the incision has healed beautifully, and they said I handle the crutches like a pro. And yes, I’ll call every few days. You have my word. In the meantime, say hi to Gwyn and the kids for me, all right?”
“I still don’t like this,” Gareth muttered. “But fine. Just look after yourself.”
The connection went dead, and Sean slid the cell phone back into its clip on his belt. Then, the sweat of exertion already turning his shirt clammy, he took the duffel bag from beside the four bulging grocery sacks in the trunk, slung it across his back, and settled his crutches into his armpits for the first of several trips down the slope to the cottage.